Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrating 50 years of the Laser in 2010

A little more than 48 years ago, when I was a fledgling young electrical engineer at the Westinghouse Defense Center in Baltimore, I had a fortunate occasion that transformed my career into one of the most exciting experiences I could expect in my life. I was developing and testing some electronic timing/counting circuits for airborne radar systems; I was bored to death and wondering why I had dragged my young wife up to Baltimore from Texas to live in this “foreign land”, away from friends, relatives and Mexican food.

My engineering manager approached me just before lunch one day in June 1961, and showed me a copy of the latest issue of Scientific American magazine. He said, “Here, read this article about a helium-neon laser that had been created at Bell Labs. We want to build the second one, and I want to know if you would like to have this assignment.” I read the article, struggled through the quantum mechanics, modern physics and optics, and couldn’t imagine any practical applications for this curious device. But I also couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to do, so I returned from lunch and responded with “why not”?

We had the HeNe lasing @ 1.153 microns (with a flat mirror Fabry-Perot etalon cavity) before the end of the year. Then we set out to build a ruby laser like Ted Maiman had demonstrated at Hughes. When we got it to operate (with a pulse energy output of about two joules), we focused the beam, with a one-inch focal length lens, on a razor blade, and blew a hole in it. Now we knew the potential application; we had the ultimate weapon to “blow ICBM’s out of the sky” and save the USA from nuclear weapon destruction! The Department of Defense also caught the laser fever; within months, R&D $$ for laser development began to flow like a river. We tried to make more powerful lasers by discovering other materials that would lase (someone even reported that they had made jello to lase.) We built ruby laser oscillator/amplifiers to raise the output power and sent them to military labs for more testing.

I not only shot more razor blades, I shot other, more exotic materials; calculated the volume of material removed and measured the impulse generated by the rapid “blow-off” at the material’s surface. In 1963 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United Nations, beat his shoe on the podium, and showed a hand ruler that had a small hole in it made from a ruby laser. He declared that the USSR had the ultimate weapon that would allow them to control the world. By that time, I had determined that it might be more effective to “throw the laser at the ICBM” than it would be to try to shoot it out of the sky. Laser weapons’ research continued, and some useful devices have no doubt been developed that have made our military more efficient and our country safer.

But many more unique, useful laser applications have been developed in medicine, surgery, telecommunications, manufacturing, homeland security, lighting, displays and nanotechnology, to name a few. Lasers (today, a part of photonics) is an enabling technology that has provided new solutions to difficult problems, made our country a safer place to live and improved our quality of life. I’m so glad that I am a part of this scientific achievement. I’m an engineer and an educator; I didn’t discover the laser, but I am proud to have been part of its development; I’ve contributed to new applications; and I’ve been working for the last 35 years to build the laser (photonics) technician workforce - a critical element in this exciting and useful field.

Next year, the American Physical Society (APS), along with other sponsors, like OP-TEC, is leading a national celebration to commemorate the 50th year of the laser. This celebration is called LaserFest.

Check out the plans, information, history and opportunities to participate in LaserFest by visiting the APS web site at

For the next several weeks I will be writing about LaserFest and some of my early memories of the emergence of the laser, including some early pioneer colleagues, technologies that had to be created/changed to support laser development, the transition from “laser systems development” to “laser applications development”, and the need/response for laser technicians.

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